When China’s press does it, it’s propaganda. When our press does it, it’s heartwarming human-interest storytelling.

The New York Times published a story about the propaganda value of “Frost Boy,” a Chinese lad whose nearly 3-mile trek to school in bitter winter weather left him with frozen hair and rosy cheeks.

As Adam Johnson pointed out back in August — and as Bailey Stuber discussed on Episode 9 of the podcast — U.S. media outlets love stories like these but usually fail to pursue the bigger questions that these stories raise. Johnson put it this way:

A healthy press would take these anecdotes of “can do” spirit and ask bigger questions, like why are these people forced into such absurd hardship? Who benefits from skyrocketing college costs? Why does the public transit in this person’s city not have subsidies for the poor? Why aren’t employers forced to offer time off for catastrophic accidents? But time and again, the media mindlessly tells the bootstrap human interest story, never questioning the underlying system at work.

But when this kind of story goes viral in China, the New York Times has no trouble immediately discerning that there are in fact two contradictory aspects to this story: first, the propaganda value of this “symbol of the raw determination of rural residents” (as the NYT reporter put it), and second, the “plight of the tens of millions of so-called left-behind children who grow up in impoverished rural areas largely on their own after their parents leave to work in big cities” (again in the words of the NYT reporter).

We don’t get this kind of nuance when it comes to the U.S. versions of these stories. As Johnson and Stuber pointed out, we get two versions of this story: the original version, where some impoverished worker walks ten miles uphill in the snow both ways to work every day, and then the follow-up where the news media congratulates itself for telling this inspiring story by reporting on the groundswell of public support for the impoverished worker, who (thanks to a GoFundMe campaign or a generous anonymous donor) can now afford a car to get to work.

Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but it would be nice if the news operations that run these types of “perseverance porn” (Johnson’s term) stories read the NYT’s China example and realized that their own puff pieces about these diligent, obedient individuals who gratefully schlep to their grueling, underpaid jobs every day are actually part of a larger narrative serving a specific political perspective and propaganda purpose.

State by state comparison of factors correlated (or not) with assessment scores

On a whim, I decided to compare school performance data with other measurable characteristics.

I chose two sets of achievement data: the Education Week Quality Counts State Report Cards Map (K-12 achievement), and the Nation’s Report Card for 8th grade reading and math.

I looked for correlation with multiple data sets: state-by-state rankings of charter school laws from a pro-charter perspective (source), state-by-state union strength rankings from a conservative think tank (source), per-student expenditures in each state according to the NEA (source; look for table H-11), percentage of people in each state who identify as Democrats (since people often blame educational dysfunction on Democrats)(source); and finally, median income per state according to the U.S. Census (source).

Median income had the strongest correlation with test scores, with r values of 0.5 and 0.38. The other factors had no appreciable correlation at all.

If you’d rather not scroll around in the little embed window above, here’s a direct link to the spreadsheet.

Passive voice and euphemism in coverage of #KameronPrescott case

Several days before the end of the first semester, my students and I talked about the ways in which passive voice and euphemism are deployed by PR-savvy spokespeople to deflect responsibility from their clients.

A horrifying tragedy right before Christmas provided a real-life example.

Let’s start with the headline on the website of the San Antonio Express-News: “2 dead after BCSO deputy-involved shooting, manhunt through San Antonio suburb.”

“Deputy-involved shooting,” like its more common cousin “officer-involved shooting,” is an Orwellian euphemism which should never be used by any serious journalist. As I’ve previously explained, the phrase originated with the LAPD’s Officer Involved Shooting Unit and appears in no journalism style guides.

The story’s lead and second graf are as follows:

A 6-year-old boy was fatally shot when Bexar County sheriff’s deputies opened fire on a woman at a Schertz mobile home park after a lengthy manhunt Thursday.

The woman — a wanted felon and a suspect in a car theft — also was killed by the gunfire at the Pecan Grove Manufactured Home Community, located off FM 78 on the banks of Cibolo Creek.

I’ve added boldface to highlight the egregious use of passive voice. It would be very easy to rewrite these sentences in active voice:

Bexar County sheriff’s deputies killed two people — a 6-year-old boy and a wanted felon — at a Schertz mobile home park after a lengthy manhunt Thursday.

Deputies shot the boy and the felon, who was also a suspect in a car theft, at the Pecan Grove Manufactured Home Community, located off FM 78 on the banks of Cibolo Creek.

There. Why is that so difficult? Why do so many journalists reporting on police shootings use this tortured, forced language?

My main theory is that many of these reporters are basically rewriting official police statements. This type of responsibility-deflecting jargon is frequently found in official statements from government employees. For example, watch this video that highlights the phrase “mistakes were made.”

There is no legitimate journalistic reason to use the phrase “officer-involved shooting.” There is no reason to use the passive voice in a sentence like “A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Department was involved in the shooting.” There is no reason for journalists to use any government agency’s deflecting, bloodless, PR jargon.

Journalists, your job is to inform, explain, clarify, and “serve as an independent monitor of power.” Your job is not to rewrite government press releases. Everybody at the San Antonio Express-News who put their fingers on this story before publication ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Three local TV stations putting trash on Facebook.

As Gay Adelmann pointed out, three local Louisville stations posted their own versions of the exact same story today.

All three of these are “news” reports about a Texas woman’s Facebook post. Yes, three-fourths of our local stations felt the need to report a story about a random woman’s social media thoughts.

But it’s not just our local stations that saw fit to share this “story.” If you type “texas woman cotton complaint” into Google, you find that dozens and dozens of local “news” stations and websites have done the same thing.

Adelmann called the story both “click bait” and “race bait,” and I think her assessment is accurate. All you have to do is briefly skim the comment sewers on any of these sites to see that the articles are deliberate attempts to provoke a certain demographic that is highly likely to watch local TV news — older, less educated conservatives.

So what does this incident tell us about local TV news outlets and their behavior on social media?

  1. Their performance on social media has nothing to do with newsworthiness and everything to do with clicks, shares, likes, interactions, and so forth. (Another perfect case study for this: WLKY’s awful Twitter feed.)
  2. They are more than willing to stoke racial tensions and encourage the worst types of internet commenters by posting pointless, insignificant stories like this.
  3. They are imitators, not innovators. Look how many “news” outlets posted this story on their websites. They saw it go viral for other organizations and they wanted some of those eyeballs.

I should add that this doesn’t just happen with non-news stories that appeal to conservatives — it also happens with liberals. For just one example, take a look at this On the Media report about liberals’ susceptibility to Russia conspiracy theories.

If you encounter stories like these on social media, you should do the following:

  1. Fact-check the story. Was the story told on multiple news outlets? Was it confirmed by outlets that are ideologically different from (or even opposed to) the original source? Was it confirmed by multiple name-brand, known-quantity outlets, or by a bunch of websites you’ve never heard of?
  2. Let’s say you’ve fact-checked it and it turns out to be true. Then ask yourself: Why are the news outlets publishing this story? Is it truly newsworthy? Will it have any actual impact on your life? Or is it just reinforcing your own beliefs about the world?
  3. So the story may be true, but it’s not really newsworthy. Now what? It’s easy: Don’t share this crap. Don’t click like, or share, or retweet, or whatever. If possible, hide it in your feed. Not only are you doing yourself a favor, you’re doing the rest of us a favor too — because social media companies use your participation to justify inserting that story into everybody else’s feed. If you don’t participate, that works against those types of stories. So don’t indulge. Move on.

According to NYT, the concept of false balance “masquerades as rational thinking”

Unbelievably, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd declared yesterday that one of the most widespread critiques of mainstream news media doesn’t even qualify as “rational thought,” and is in fact a sneaky partisan attack.

Keep in mind that this is the same newspaper that, two months ago, ran a Paul Krugman column in which Krugman diagnosed false balance (also known as false equivalence, “both sides do it,” or “bothsidesism” as Krugman labels it) as the reason that Donald Trump remains competitive in polls.

Spayd is troubled by charges of “false balance” because the New York Times has run many investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server scandal, and many readers have written in complaining that the NY Times is, in the words of one reader, “drinking the false equivalency Kool-Aid.”

As someone who receives the print version of the New York Times, I can say that there are, on average, two to three anti-Trump pieces in the paper every day. Frequently they are front page news stories, but there are also anti-Trump editorials and op-eds as well as lengthier articles deeper in the paper. If readers think the NYT treats Trump and Clinton as equally bad choices, then readers are wrong. The New York Times is clearly devoted to reporting all of Trump’s errors, gaffes, stumbles, fumbles and faux pas.

That said, Spayd overreaches in her column when she declares that “the problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking.” There is nothing irrational about critiquing the news media’s (at best irritating and at worst grossly irresponsible) tendency to seek balance. After all, that is precisely what journalists are trained to do, and if they do it poorly that means they were trained poorly as novices and edited poorly as professionals.

Furthermore, false balance tends to show up far more often in commentary than in coverage. Here is an excellent case study from the New York Times’ own David Brooks, appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday:

BROOKS: [Trump] was saying things – as E.J. pointed out – which were just ridiculous – the support for Putin, the oil comment, the idea that we should leave back some core of people and take Iraq’s oil is moral idiocy. First of all, it wouldn’t work. Second of all, it’s called imperialism. And it’s been done and it didn’t work, and it’s an outrage. And it sort of goes under the radar because he’s just ill-informed about what it would actually take.

She was just as bad, but in a different way. She’s certainly well-informed, but she was so ungracious and so unpleasant and so evasive that I think on style points, which matter a lot in these sort of things, she showed just tremendous vulnerability.

So you see, Trump’s ideas and policies are “ridiculous” and “moral idiocy” and an “outrage” and “ill-informed,” but Clinton was “ungracious” and “evasive” so she was “just as bad.”

That’s false equivalency. Krugman correctly diagnoses the problem, Brooks gives us a textbook example of it, and Spayd says that pointing out this journalistic error is irrational and partisan. Go figure.

InsiderLouisville columns

November 20 2014


December 18 2014


February 3 2015


May 5 2015


July 2, 2015


August 4, 2015


March 3, 2016


WFPL Columns

Here is a complete list of all the WFPL columns I published from February 2013 to August 2014.